Books·How I Wrote It

Cellist Ian Hampton chronicles his life in classical music in Taylor Prize-nominated memoir

Jan in 35 Pieces by Vancouver cellist Ian Hampton is among the finalists for the $30,000 RBC Taylor Prize, an annual award celebrating Canadian nonfiction.
Ian Hampton is an acclaimed cellist and the author of the memoir Jan in 35 Pieces. (J. L. Walter, Porcupine's Quill)

Jan in 35 Pieces by Vancouver cellist Ian Hampton is among the finalists for the $30,000 RBC Taylor Prize, an annual award celebrating Canadian nonfiction. Written in the third person, the memoir describes Hampton's life as a professional classical musician — from his early training in Britain to playing with the London Symphony Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra and others. Uniquely, he writes his story through the lens of 35 pieces of music.

Below, Hampton describes how Jan in 35 Pieces came to be.

Accidental memoir

"I didn't really start out to write a memoir. I wanted to write about the music and I felt it better to be in the third person and not to put myself out front. When you talk about music, it's a very abstract thing. I wanted to get at the subject a little obliquely through anecdotes to try and convey to the reader the lives that musicians lead, as well as the way music affects them and the way they want to play music.

"It sort of became a bit of a memoir as we went along. One's life naturally impinges on music and so details of my personal life crept in. My wonderful editor, Barbara Nickel, would say, 'Well, you can't just leave the reader dangling. You need to tie this up.' So more details of my personal life came into it. But principally, I'm trying to convey the value of music and the way that I value it. I chose 35 pieces of music. I suppose I could have chosen 70 if the space permitted."

Music is for everyone

"I'm aware that this book is for a rather limited clientele. But, at the same time, everybody I know loves music.

"I remember listening to a love song which was written in 1100 and it's heartfelt. It really brings home the emotion of somebody who's in love. We can relate to that, even though the music may be 1,000 years old. People don't necessarily want to travel back in time, and yet everybody in the western world comes up against classical music. I mean how could you miss Mendelssohn's Wedding March or Handel's Hallelujah Chorus or Vivaldi's Seasons? They are coming at you, even at the airport."

Trading a bow for a pen

"I am a dinosaur when it comes to computers and things like that, so I actually wrote the whole thing longhand. I enjoyed writing. Having written this book, I have a greater appreciation of other people's writing. But I approach it fairly loosely, whereas as a classical musician you're trained to see every little dot and dash. Your career may depend on it, if you get the wrong conductor. It's a rigorous discipline, whereas writing for me, I didn't come with all that baggage.

"I wanted it to be humorous. I wanted it to be a bit like a James Herriot book — something quite light for the layman. Classical music by its nature is rather staid and can be fairly heady, so I wanted to keep a light touch."

The future of classical music

"I'm concerned about the decline of classical music. I don't for a moment think that any music is going to go away. It's just out there and available for anybody who has an interest in it. Nevertheless, music has been in decline for most of my career, I think. Music is the first thing to get slashed when budgets are shrinking. I think it shows in the general appreciation of music and what is presented, both over the air and in the theatre. There's quite a bit in the book about my music school, the Langley Community Music School and trying to provide a milieu for children as they grow up so that they don't feel a bit strange carrying a violin around."

Ian Hampton's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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